Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Setting Density

Literally the poster child for complex settings
Since I'm currently working on my setting lore, I've been thinking about how that information is going to be used. I definitely don't want to make players read a book before they sit down to play, but if they want to dig into the lore, it should be there. Plus there's the whole thing about me working on my worldbuilding, but that's besides the point.

So today, I want to talk about setting density, or, in essence: how much information does a player need to role-play effectively within a setting?

High-Density Settings

In a high-density setting, you will be creating a lot of information for the players to digest. This can certainly vary from setting to setting, but let's say at the minimum, a dense setting requires the DM to fill in the players with some world backstory and historic information before they can make their characters. If the players can make characters and fit them into the world with little instruction, your setting is fairly flexible.

Now, I want to be clear: ANY amount of world history that your players need to create their characters is going to add density to your setting. I'm not talking about class or race restrictions, or building a party that has the appropriate balance and level. I'm also excluding the basic setting description, like "sci-fi old west" or "conan the barbarian but in space".

Why is the barrier for increasing setting density so low? Well, because you're deviating from the player's resource: the character creation guide. If you say "no elves or warlocks", that's fine because there are still eight other races and eleven other classes for them to choose. You didn't add anything, you just removed some options. Same goes for telling your cleric "we use the Forgotten Realms Gods." It's all still in the handbook.

But if you add information, suddenly the player has something they need to take into account when they make their character. And you, as a DM, will expect the player to know and reference that information in-game. I don't care how little information it is, that changes the dynamic of the narrative.

I want to point out that this is by no means a bad thing: world history creates a sense of gravitas to a game. Establishing events and places makes it possible for the characters to learn about and change them. And some players will latch onto this information and build powerful and compelling heroes within the setting.

And here is the crux of the issue.

If you guys could just look this over and memorize it by Friday, that'd be great
If you have a high-density setting coupled with an invested group of players, you can go into the deep end of setting density. You can recreate Game of Thrones. Forget Star Trek, you can go Blade Runner, or even Primer.

A game like this engages certain types of people. When people consider something fun, they generally fall into several of the categories of fun: Sensation, Fantasy, Narrative, Challenge, Fellowship, Discovery, Expression, and Submission. Most tabletop RPGs already satisfy those who are interested in Fantasy, Fellowship, and Expression.

A high-density setting also engages those who are interested in discovery, narrative, and challenge. Among Dungeon Masters, these players are often considered the "good" players. It's a bit unfortunate, because in many cases the DM simply isn't engaging their "bad" players correctly.

In a high-density setting, a player who isn't invested in the setting might still be interested in the game, if one of the ways they have fun is through submission. Some people enjoy simply sitting back and watching a scene unfold, or hearing their friends pretend to fight orcs, or whatever. However, this is usually interpreted by a DM as "low participation".

Now we can really define exactly how much setting information makes a setting high-density: enough that some of your player's eyes start to glaze over, and instead of playing their character, they sit back and watch the game happen instead.

I again want to point out that this isn't a bad thing, as long as you and your players both accept the situation. If you have a player who can't follow everything you're saying but still enjoys the game, then that doesn't mean you have to cater to them: they might just enjoy being there and hanging out. Go ahead and write your high-density setting. Just know that their character shouldn't be the chosen one. In fact, they might be better off being the dog companion.

One last note: a high-density setting does not necessarily have to be large. A sci-fi game set on a arc-ship carrying the last of humanity can be a very high-density game, especially if the plot of the game is keeping the ship functional.

Low-Density Settings

Yeah, why not?
A low-density setting can be summarized in a sentence. Depending on your players, you might be able to get away with more, but for most groups, this is the gold standard of low-density.

So, that must be an important sentence, right? Not really, actually. The key is using tropes. Sorry for the link there, that website is a trap.

By using tropes, you have a cultural shorthand for the setting you want to establish. It's the basic setting description I was talking about. Ahneria is "generic fantasy but high-magic like Elder Scrolls".

This doesn't stop a setting from being vast and unexplored. You can still have depth in a low-density setting.

For players who are interested in diving into the setting, make sure to give them plenty to explore. Make some areas more challenging.

For players who are less invested, let them play with the tropes. If it sounds like they are having fun, they probably are.

Again, just make sure everyone is on the same page.


I want to make another distinction here. High- and Low-Density setting is a distinction of information. It isn't a distinction of tone. That's what people want to mean when they say a setting is "gritty" - the tone is darker.

As an example, we could make a setting that is fun, wild and fantastical, but very high-density. There'd be almost no grit, but plenty of information for the player to digest in order to play. This could be accomplished by making a vast and complex magic or combat system. The players would really need to invest their mental energy into the system in order to play, but in the end they could just be using magic to make bunnies spontaneously appear from hats.

I cast Light!
On the reverse side, it'd be easy to invent a setting that is dark and gritty in tone, but very low-density. In fact, I could do it with a single rule: in 5th edition, your HP equals your level. Now, players have to contend with an incredibly dangerous and death-filled world, but there's almost no barrier for entry. In fact, that method of HP generations is easier than standard D&D!

In the end, a gritty setting is more about tone and challenge. You can still engage expression and allow players to do what they want, even if the tone is gritty. And a setting that is light in tone can still be complex and even challenging. Just because the setting is more lenient doesn't mean there aren't consequences for a player's actions.

Perhaps This Doesn't Deserve Another Heading But I'm Doing It Anyway and Now the Heading is Way Too Long So I Guess It's a Bit Couterproductive

I mentioned that both types of settings could have a basic setting description. I think this is one of the most important things you can have for a setting, and something that doesn't get enough attention.

Basically, you need to have an elevator pitch for your setting. "Fantasy setting where, half a century ago, a comet fell from the sky and caused a cataclysmic event." "Old school fantasy where the players get trapped in a maze-like demiplane ruled by a powerful monster." "Everyone plays as brand-name foods inside a local supermarket." Whatever it might be.

This is important because it connects with the tropes the players will use to imagine their characters. You don't want a player to build a character with modern tech skills and weaponry in your fantasy horror setting. OR DO YOU?

Thanks for reading!

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